Should Your Food and Wine Complement or Contrast? A Look at Two Ways to Pair Wine

Complement Wine Pairing

Complement wine pairings match sweet foods, like strawberries, with relatively sweet wines. Photo Credit: Pexels CC user jaymantri

I’ve been to countless wine tastings and dinner parties in my lifetime, and I’ve noticed one peculiar thing: some hosts love to make wine pairings that complement the food, while others love to contrast wine with the food, and few, if any, mix the two tasting styles together. With a complement pairing, the food and the wine are very similar in flavor profile, but with a contrast, the food and the wine are polar opposites. In my experience, the type of wine tasting you prefer depends on your personality. Most of my over-achieving, perfectionist friends love a good complement wine pairing, while my creative-minded friends lean toward contrasting wine pairings.

What Is a Complement Wine Pairing?

A complement wine pairing involves picking out the overarching flavor qualities of a wine and identifying foods that perfectly mimic these flavors. This is by far the easiest type of tasting to put together, as long as you correctly understand the flavor profile of the wine from the start. For instance, if I come across an opulent, spicy northern Rhone Syrah, like Guigal’s La Turque, I might choose to pair it with a big, spicy, herb-filled dish that lives up to the wine’s intensity, like a rich beef stew.

To use this technique, read as many wine reviews as you can for the vintage and pick out the flavor descriptions that crop up most often among at least three critics. If I see that International Wine Cellar’s David Schildknecht calls JJ Prum’s 1999 Sonnenuhr Riesling “rich and oily” with “vanilla and caramelized apple,” and find at least two other critics who agree with him, I’d probably pair that wine with an apple creme brulee. This type of dessert has strong vanilla and caramel flavors while bringing out the fruity apple in the wine.

When to Use a Complement

The problem with a complement wine pairing is that it can easily bore the palate. To make the most out of this technique, I recommend sticking with one or two wines, at most. Complement pairings work well for dinner parties serving just one course and a dessert; your palate gets to enjoy the bolder flavors of your main wine and dinner course, but before it loses interest, you can switch gears to a sweeter pairing, which excites the palate again. Many people make the mistake of serving a bold appetizer with a bold wine, followed by another intense first course and wine, followed by yet another opulent wine and main course pairing. You need to give your palate a rest from the intensity.

On that note, there’s really only one type of wine that requires a complement pairing almost 100 percent of the time: intense, overpowering reds. Except in rare cases, it’s hard to find a food that will contrast well with an alcoholic, jammy red wine because these tend to overwhelm the palate. Any lighter dishes will get lost under the weight of these wines, and as such, it’s often more practical to amp up your food flavors to partner with the wine than to try to contrast it with something light. I love pairing fruit bombs with braised red meats, or very rich foods.

What Is a Contrast Wine Pairing?

One of my friends, an interior designer, compares wine tasting to her work; you wouldn’t want to live in an all-beige house, just as you wouldn’t want to taste very sweet wines with sugary desserts. Her favorite pairing is carne asada tacos with German Riesling. You would never guess that a savory Latin American dish would work well with a supple, delicate German wine, yet this is what a contrast is all about: making unusual combinations that sound random but that actually involve careful calculation.

What makes a good contrast? First, you need to find the missing piece to the flavor puzzle. I find that it’s easier to think of a food, then work backwards to the perfect contrast wine, than it is to start with a wine and find the right food. Take spicy carne asada tacos for example; they already have a bold, savory flavor, and if you serve them with guacamole, they’ll have plenty of oily richness. What’s missing? A light crispness! Just as you would sprinkle lime juice on top of these tacos to cut through the spice and intense flavors, you can choose a light, citrusy, mineral-heavy wine as a foil to those flavors as well. Similarly, to work backwards from a wine, find the flavor component that’s lacking (richness, sweetness, spiciness, etc.), and then choose a food that exemplifies that missing flavor.

When to Use a Contrast

If you’re serving a multi-course meal, or you have plenty of light, subtle wines on your list, you should consider a contrast rather than a complement. Contrasts are designed to pique your palate’s interest through intense stimulation, no matter how many wines you plan to serve. When doing a contrast tasting, work up the courage to try something bold, even if you’re worried it might not work. The mistake I see many hosts make is pairing a wine with a food that seems like it contrasts, but that doesn’t go far enough.

A good example is a bold California Cabernet Sauvignon and caviar. You might think that the spiciness of the Cabernet would cut through the silkiness of the caviar, but in reality, the Cabernet bogs down the caviar because the two share sweetness and a heavy texture. Instead, go with a wine entirely unlike rich, creamy caviar, like a bone dry Champagne. Where the food is dense, the wine should be light; where the food is sweet, the wine should be dry. Every aspect should contrast if you want to be successful at this kind of pairing.

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Ryan has worked in every restaurant capacity from bartender to management, and in wine distribution as a consultant and advisor to Chicago’s most elite restaurants and retailers. As a new member of Vinfolio's Executive Fine Wine Specialists, he is thrilled to share his expertise and passion for wine. Outside of the office, he can be found learning to cultivate vines in the garden, with a glass of White Burgundy in hand, or hiking with his wife and dogs.